Members of Maryland's congressional delegation welcomed a debate on whether the U.S. should launch a military strike against Syria but said Saturday they want to review classified intelligence reports — and hear about the scope of President Barack Obama's plan — before deciding whether to sign off.
The administration is expected to begin briefing lawmakers Sunday, a day after Obama announced he would seek congressional authorization for a strike intended to punish Syria's leader, Bashar Assad. Administration officials say Assad is responsible for a chemical weapons attack Aug. 21 that killed more than 1,400 Syrians.
Several Democratic lawmakers in Maryland said they agree with Obama's assessment that the attack begs some level of response from the United States, but they also noted the lessons learned from the conflict in Iraq and warned against getting too deeply involved in the country's escalating civil war.
"We need to get this right," said Sen. Ben Cardin, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Having a national debate is what we need to do."
The potential use of U.S. military force in Syria has drawn criticism from some members of both parties. Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner, had previously requested that Obama seek authorization from Congress to launch the strikes — an increasingly rare step for presidents of either party.
Two years ago, Obama approved airstrikes in Libya without the consent of lawmakers.
In a statement Saturday, Boehner and other Republican leaders in the House of Representatives praised Obama for consulting with Capitol Hill but offered little indication about their appetite for military action. Boehner said the House will consider a resolution the week of Sept. 9, when lawmakers were previously scheduled to return to Washington after their summer recess.
A spokesman for Maryland's only Republican congressman, Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County, said the lawmaker did not have a comment on Obama's announcement Saturday.
Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore laid out a series of questions he said he'll pose to the administration in coming days, including what the proposed action will entail, what it is supposed to accomplish, what are possible unintended consequences and how officials can ensure that a strike would be limited.
"He's absolutely right that the county is war weary," Cummings said of Obama. "I think that after what happened in Iraq, when we went into a war with information that was not accurate — I've got to tell you that many of my constituents don't trust" the intelligence reports on Syria.
Cummings said that based on what he knew so far, he was "leaning toward" Obama's position that a military response is required, but said he needs to know more before deciding.
"What we don't want to do is go in thinking that it's going to be of limited scope and limited duration only to find out that we have gotten ourselves into a hornet's nest," Cummings said.
House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer agreed with giving lawmakers a chance to weigh in.
"President Obama has carefully weighed the case for taking action along with our international partners to respond forcefully to the Syrian regime's deadly and nefarious use of chemical weapons," he said in a statement Saturday. "Now it is time for Congress, as the representatives of the American people, to do the same."
Obama had previously said that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a "red line" for the U.S. that would trigger military action. Since the Aug. 21 attack, the administration has sought to both prove that Assad was to blame and develop a response.
But the delay has also triggered criticism — both from those who believe the U.S. should have acted sooner and those who think it should stay away from the Syrian conflict. The British Parliament struck a significant blow to Obama on Thursday when it rejected a proposal for military action in the country.
Hassan Masri, a Baltimore physician who traveled to his parents' homeland last year to help treat civilians wounded in the conflict, said he is glad the United States is considering military action against Assad. But he said it has been late in coming, and he's concerned it will also be too little.
"This is the maximum attention that Syria's going to get, right?" the Glen Burnie man asked after watching Obama's Rose Garden address. "If the maximum intervention is a few hits here and there, and then Assad is still in power, you can imagine how ruthless he's going to be."
Masri wants military action that would tilt the conflict in favor of the rebels. Like other Syrians and Syrian-Americans, he has called on the United States to enforce a no-fly zone over the country to protect the rebels and civilians from the Syrian Air Force.
"The intervention is coming late to start with. And delaying it for 10 more days while Congress gets back from the holiday will only tell Assad that you can gas 1,400 people and we're going to give you 20 or 30 days while we think about whether we should care or not," he said.